This post answers some frequently answered questions (FAQs) about Mardi Gras in New Orleans as well as Carnival Season in general, updated for 2023.
You can also find videos and links to further content to help you plan your time in New Orleans for this uniquely New Orleans festive season.
One thing to get clear, Mardi Gras and Carnival are more than just Bourbon St.
Mardi Gras literally translates into English as “Fat Tuesday” and it is the culmination of the Carnival season.
It is a predominantly Catholic celebration that begins on January 6th, also known as Epiphany and represents when the Magi reached the Christ child.
Mardi Gras Day was first observed in Louisiana on March 2, 1699, by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville near what is now Baton Rouge.
When is Mardi Gras?
The Catholic church set Easter to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.
Mardi Gras is scheduled forty-seven days before Easter and can occur on any Tuesday from February 3rd through March 9th. Some upcoming dates are listed below.
- February 21, 2023
- February 13, 2024
- March 4, 2025
Fat Tuesday takes place the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.
But if you are coming to New Orleans for Mardi Gras celebrations, it's best to understand it as carnival season rather than just one day.
WHEN AND WHERE ARE THE MARDI GRAS PARADES?
Most parades happen in the three weekends leading up to Mardi Gras.
Each parade has its own annual time slot - for example, the Krewe of Muses parade always rolls on the Thursday before Mardi Gras.
The announced Mardi Gras parade schedules are, let’s say, good intentions.
Parades are often delayed, and the reason can be anything from a tractor breakdown to a member of a dance krewe stopping along the route to propose marriage.
Despite popular conception, most parades don’t venture onto Bourbon Street or into the French Quarter at all.
Most, however, do go along the edge of the Quarter, so there are very few that visitors to that part of town wouldn’t find within walking distance.
Note: walking parades do tend to take place in the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods.
The most common float parade route begins in uptown New Orleans, mostly along St. Charles Avenue.
They then continues into the business district, and finally turns onto Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter, ending at the Morial Convention Center.
A few parades run completely different paths. You can find a schedule for most of the 2023 parades here.
What is a Carnival Krewe?
A krewe - pronounced like “crew” - is a social club, and many of them are involved in making Mardi Gras parades.
They’ve been part of Carnival in New Orleans since 1856, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus was founded to create the first organized parade.
Comus had secret traditions, laws, and membership, and their rule of always parading in masks is still part of Carnival today - float riders are required by law to wear a mask.
Today, some krewes still behave like secret societies, while others are social aid clubs, and some are more like adult fraternities and sororities.
Some krewes meet just once a year on Mardi Gras, while others hold events throughout the year.
The krewes that produce large float parades tend to be most famous. But if you’re in New Orleans during parade season, you’ll see a lot more than just that.
Parades exist on a spectrum from huge “superkrewes” to what some people call “microkrewes.”
Superkrewes produce the five biggest parades – they have the most and largest floats, each decorated like a Broadway set.
And their thows are plentiful, varied, and sometimes downright high-tech (think not just beads, but beads that light up – plus cups, stuffed animals, noisemakers, frisbees, and more).
At the other end of the spectrum, parades created by “microkrewes” are much smaller and DIY; floats may be involved.
But more often these are walking parades, with participants showing off a costume.
Below is a sample of the various different Mardi Gras Krewes. Click here to learn more about the other 90+ krewes.
Named for the Roman god of wine, Bacchus is one of five “superkrewes” - the parades with the biggest and most high-tech floats and often the most impressive throws.
Other super krewes include the Krewe of Endymion and the Krewe of Orpheus.
Rex represents older, traditional Mardi Gras parades, produced by wealthy New Orleanians who often have multiple generations of membership.
Their floats are works of art, but not as large or as high-tech as the superkrewes.
Annual themes for their parades come from mythology, literature, and the arts.
Their signature throw is a stuffed white bull - the “boeuf gras” - which represents the sacrificial animals that would have been part of the Roman holidays that led to Carnival.
Zulu formed early in the 20th century as an all-black krewe at a time when krewe membership was typically restricted to wealthy white men.
Where many older krewes draw their imagery from European antiquity, Zulu uses African art to inspire their floats and costumes.
Their signature throws are painted coconuts.
Named for the nine Greek goddesses of the arts, Muses is an all-female group and one of the five superkrewes.
Besides impressive floats and plentiful throws, the calling card of the Muses parade is their signature throw - decorated shoes.
Hand-decorated by the riders themselves, Muses shoes are probably the most sought-after items distributed by Mardi Gras parades.
The krewe’s social media even invites those who received a shoe to identify themselves and reconnect with the rider who made it.
In keeping with this symbol, the krewe’s beads also often have high-heel-shaped pendants, and one of their floats is itself a giant, glowing shoe.
In the eyes of most New Orleanians, Krewe du Vieux is the start of parade season.
Krewe du Vieux is one of the few parades rolling through the French Quarter today, and it takes its name from “Vieux Carré,” another name for the French Quarter.
Krewe du Vieux consists of small floats alternating with walking groups in coordinated costumes.
The floats satirize the year’s news, local and otherwise, and their sense of humor is best called “raunchy.”
Throws are fewer at parades of this scale, but you can still expect to go home with some beads.
Riffing on the name of the Krewe of Bacchus, one of the superkrewes, the Krewe of Chewbacchus is a loosely organized hive of sci-fi and fantasy fans.
The krewe is built of many smaller groups - subkrewes - with names like the Leijorettes, the Mystic Krewe of Evangelical Pastafarians, and the Death Star Steppers.
Their aesthetic is DIY - mostly it’s about costumes, but you’ll see some small, homemade floats (a decked-out shopping cart or pickup truck or something like that).
They also hand out bandoliers - wearable sashes with velcro on them, to which you can attach the many custom throws the krewe members hand out.
Since not all New Orleanians can afford or care to be a part of building the enormous float parades, some krewes operate on a smaller, DIY scale.
Another variation on the Bacchus name, the Krewe of Barkus fills the streets of the French Quarter with costumed dogs. (The parade also contains a small Krewe of Meoux contingent, whose members literally try to herd cats.)
Click here to learn more about the other 90+ krewes.
Some groups, rather than produce their own parade, participate in several throughout the season.
And in the spaces between floats in the larger parades, you’ll see high school and university marching bands and dance teams, adult dance groups, stilt walkers, horseback riders, and more.
Some of these groups would be considered krewes in their own right - like the 610 Stompers (see the video above), the Krewe of Rolling Elvi, or the Sirens.
What are King Cakes?
In New Orleans, King cakes are sweet circular treats covered in colorful icing.
The current incarnation of the King cake seems to have evolved in both Spain and France.
During the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with Epiphany. Cakes were sometimes distributed to peasants by the lord of a manor.
Today, cakes are baked with a trinket inside, usually, a plastic baby said to represent the Christ child.
The person that gets the slice with the baby inside must bring the cake next year.
What Are Mardi Gras Balls?
Mardi Gras Balls are parties in the grandest of traditions, dating back to the 1850s.
They are hosted by Krewes or social organizations and trend towards exclusivity, focusing on tradition and social order.
They are black-tie affairs with men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns. They usually mark the announcement of the King and Queen for that particular Krewe.
Most of these are members-only functions though some sell tickets to the public.
What are Krewes?
Krewes are social organizations responsible for hosting the various Balls and parades that take place during carnival season.
The Krewe of Rex; for example, is the King of carnival and on Mardi Gras day the keys of the city are turned over to him.
The city belongs to revelry. Schools and banks are closed though bars and restaurants stay open to nourish the crowds.
Krewes were traditionally all male but now are coed as well as inter-generational.
There are many krewes of New Orleans each with its own parade.
What are throws and how do you get them?
It is believed that Rex threw the first glass beads circa the 1920s. The glass beads have now been replaced with plastic ones.
In addition to the iconic beads, each parade tosses coins called doubloons, stamped with the logo of that Krewe as well as specialized throws.
These specialized throws are coveted.
From the coconuts of Zulu to the decorated shoes of the all-female Krewe of Muses, there is something for everyone.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to “flash” anything to get beads or other throws.
You do want to draw attention to yourself with a costume that somehow stands out or signage to attract those on passing floats.
What is Flambeaux?
Flambeaux is plural for flambeau. It means "flaming torch".
Before the city had adequate lighting, nighttime parades needed to provide their own light source via torchbearers.
They were originally wooden sticks, wrapped in pine-tar rags and lit on fire. They were carried by slaves or free men of color.
They began as a way to light the parades but the men started to twirl and dance with them so that they became their own art form.
Crowds threw coins as tips. The first appearance of the flambeaux tradition occurred during the 1857 Mystick Krewe of Comus parade.
Today the tradition continues with natural gas burning lanterns. It is still customary to tip but preferably with dollars instead of coins.
What are Mardi Gras Indians?
It is no secret that early Mardi Gras Krewes were all white and rigidly segregated.
If you were black, it was easy to feel as though the carnival excluded you.
Mardi Gras Indians are a somewhat secret society that formed to include this often excluded group in the festivities.
They first popped up after the Wild West Show visited New Orleans in 1884 and their costumes are heavily influenced by the dress of Native Americans in the plains region of the United States.
They hand-make their elaborate costumes anew each year and they can weigh as much as 150 pounds.
The tradition incorporates an homage to local native tribes that sheltered runaway slaves in the early days of the colony.
But they also utilize the beading tradition of such African tribes as the Yoruba.
If you need a break from the madness of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day, then the Black Indians can be seen gathering in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood.
Is Mardi Gras family-friendly?
The simple answer is it can be but it is best to keep the family away from the French Quarter and Canal street.
The uptown or upriver areas afford a more family-friendly atmosphere for viewing the parades.
It is best to stake a spot out early as the parade routes fill up quickly. Dress the kids in elaborate costumes to increase the chances for better throws.
Set up a potential rendezvous spot should you become separated.
You will potentially be on the parade route for hours so pack accordingly.
Snacks, water, sunscreen, lots of toilet paper, wet wipes, paper towels, bandages, and rain gear.
It is also a good idea to wear closed-toe shoes. So take the family and enjoy the festivities.
You might want to take the family to Family Gras. It is located in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.
It takes place on the “neutral ground” or median of Veterans Memorial Boulevard across from the Lakeside Shopping Center.
There will be a concert, food vendors, parades, art market and even a kid zone.
Also in Metairie, the Krewe of Little Rascals rolls from the corner of Eldorado Street and Woodlawn Avenue and ends at Veterans and Behman avenue.
The Krewe was founded in 1983 and is the only Mardi Gras Krewe consisting solely of children. Ages range from 2 to 18.
It gives kids a chance to feel included in what can often seem like just adult fun.
If you're going with the family, you might want to consider taking a Mardi Gras tour which covers some of the history behind this event.
In addition to all the details you'll learn, this tour also includes admission to both Mardi Gras World and a Mardi Gras Museum!
Check out the handy New Orleans Kids' family guide to Mardi Gras.
What are the colors of Mardi Gras?
Purple, green, and gold are the colors of Mardi Gras.
They were first chosen by the Krewe of Rex (the King of Carnival) in 1872.
Purple is for justice. Green is for faith. Gold is for power.
How to party like a local?
Much could be written under this paragraph, such as familiarizing yourself with parade routes and road closures.
But the main thing to remember is to pace yourself.
Mardi Gras day starts early in the morning and locals go hard all day, but locals know it is a marathon, not a race.
Get up early and indulge in a hearty breakfast before the cocktails start flowing.
And don't forget to pack snacks to help manage the alcohol intake throughout the day.
Bathrooms are hard to come by and the lines are long, so keep that in mind. Public urination is against the law.
Chances are you will have to use one of the portable bathrooms so take toilet tissue and hand sanitizer.
It is a good idea to write down the name and address of your hotel to help you better negotiate your way back if you overindulge.
Parking is non-existent in and around the French Quarter as well as on the parade routes, so leave the car at your hotel.
Traffic will be congested. Give yourself plenty of time.
Our police officers LOVE Mardi Gras too, but if they tell you to do something then it is best to listen. We want you to have a safe and enjoyable time.
What to wear?
Costume! Costume! Costume! The more creative you are the better your chances of scoring the good throws.
Be political. Be satirical. Be sexy. Be fun.
There are plenty of places throughout the city to help you create a signature look.
Need a wig? Check out Fifi Mahoney’s at 934 Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Pop City at 940 Decatur street has costumes and accessories for those looking to build on their idea. The key to remember is that you can't really go wrong.
New Orleans encourages creativity so push the limits a bit and have fun. Don't forget that it is best to wear comfortable closed-toe shoes and plan for weather extremes.
Click here for more places to shop for costumes.